Before we close our doors until next spring, we thought we’d recommend Randy Skretvedt’s updated version of his Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies–just released on Amazon!
Laurel & Hardy
Before we close our doors until next spring, we thought we’d recommend Randy Skretvedt’s updated version of his Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies–just released on Amazon!
Thank you to everyone who came out this spring to support Legends of Laughter 2: The Comedy Teams. We averaged 65 patrons a week. We are especially grateful to all our regulars who were there every week, standing in line, enjoying the bonus material, and making great comments after the show.
Thank you to Film Historian Leonard Maltin for his special introduction to our series!
Of those films screened at the Library, the Laurel & Hardy films were the highest-attended. The Devil’s Brother was the largest turnout of the series with 92. The lowest-attended was the Wheeler and Woolsey film, Diplomaniacs, which managed only 45 patrons. (The second lowest was the Martin & Lewis film, Artists and Models, with 56 in the seats.)
Those patrons who did not attend at all missed out on an opportunity to see these films in a group setting. Comedy, more than any other genre, thrives on the laughter of its audience. It’s an experience that cannot be duplicated at home. Both of our Legends of Laughter programs were unique in this respect.
Seeing these films again with an audience one can better appreciate what works on the screen– and what doesn’t. The Laurel & Hardy films (including their shorts which we played) received almost non-stop laughter whereas other films in the series generated mostly a smattering of laughs. Hellzapoppin’ went over very well with our crowd, but Buck Privates Come Home didn’t have the sustained energy; some of the gags in the latter, especially those involving Nat Pendleton –the cop chasing Bud & Lou– seemed a little strained. However, Who Done It?, also with Bud and Lou, played much better. Though Buck Privates Come Home has the better reputation, in retrospect, I might’ve chosen a childhood favorite of mine instead, Abbott & Costello Go to Mars.
Prior to the feature films, we profiled several of the lesser-known comedy teams. These rare shorts went over extremely well. We showcased Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts/Patsy Kelly, and also the team of Clark & McCullough. The laughs that these films got surpassed even some of the feature presentations! We wish we had a few more weeks for Thelma Todd!
LOL2 was only a sampling of the great comedy teams. Obviously, we could’ve done an entire series devoted to Laurel & Hardy or to the Marx Brothers. Nevertheless, we were able to cover a lot of territory in our ten weeks, and we hope we’ve inspired our audiences to search out even more of these great comedy films.
Finally, one of the highlights of the series came when parents brought their kids to some of the films. The children loved Duck Soup, for instance, and it was wonderful hearing their laughter throughout the entire movie. We wish more parents would’ve done the same.
Thank you again for the support this spring. We’ll be back at the Library in March 2017!
Matthew C. Hoffman
Road to Morocco was the third of seven “Road” movies that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made together between the years 1940 and 1962. Dorothy Lamour was their co-star and romantic interest in all of them except the last in which she only had a cameo appearance. Hope and Crosby were two of the biggest entertainers in the country, so it comes as no surprise that the series was extremely popular during the 1940s. Though they were not comics in the traditional sense—Leonard Maltin does not list them in his Great Movie Teams—they nevertheless were a team that made the ultimate “buddy movies” while also laying the foundation for later comedy acts like Martin & Lewis.
Road to Morocco is the quintessential Road picture combining elements of comedy, music, adventure, and genre satire. The films had a successful formula they didn’t deviate from. Bing Crosby elaborated, “The basic ingredient of any Road picture is a Rover Boys type plot, plus music. The plot takes two fellows, throws them into a jam or as many jams as possible, then lets them clown their way out.”
In Road to Morocco, Bing (as Jeff Peters) and Bob (as Turkey Jackson) are shipwrecked off the African coast and must make their way through the Arabian desert on a camel. Once in the city, Jeff sells poor Orville into slavery in order to cover a restaurant bill. Later, the ghost of “Aunt Lucy” prompts him to go looking for Orville. The twist is that Orville was purchased for a princess played by Dorothy Lamour and is now being pampered in a harem. The Princess, a believer in astrology, has her own motivations for wanting to marry Orville. The love triangle is further complicated by the arrival of Kasim, a jealous Arab sheik played by Anthony Quinn. Along the way Der Bingle serenades the princess with “Moonlight Becomes You,” one of the most beautiful ballads Crosby ever sang in a movie. The Johnny Burke-Jimmy Van Heusen songs are some of the best in the series.
Road to Morocco benefits from the high production values that only a major studio like Paramount could provide. The art directors dressed up the studio lot to approximate the Arabian Casbah. The competent direction of studio pro David Butler, who first started directing films in 1929 with the Fox studio, gives the film the proper, lightweight tough.
However, there was one moment on the set when Hope & Crosby were not particularly thrilled by their director. A scene early in the film called for the boys to be chased down a market street by Arab riders. They could not see the pursuing horsemen but could hear them getting closer. Not waiting for the cue from Butler, they finally jumped out of the way—Hope into a doorway and Crosby through a window, just missing the charging riders. “You almost killed Bob and me,” Crosby scolded. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Butler said. “Not until the final scene, anyway.”
When they performed live, Hope and Crosby knew how to improvise onstage with an audience. This carried over into their movies as several bits of business were ad-libbed on the set—to a degree; this was still the era of the studio system when scripts had to be followed. The fact that the film gives the impression of being spontaneous is because of the naturalness and ease of both performers. One gag that was definitely improvised came from the camel no less. In a scene early in the film where the boys turn to discover a grouchy camel, the animal spits in Bob’s face! The camera take was left in the movie and their reactions you see were absolutely genuine.
The screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award, wonderfully captures the charm and energy of these characters. Written by Frank Butler and Don Hartman, this was the first screenplay in the Road series that was specifically tailored for them. Especially colorful is the jazzy dialect– the Bingo lingo that makes Crosby’s character sound more like the real Bing. In these films, he was usually cast as the cool-under-pressure, easy-going con artist while Bob played the nervous, unheroic schnook who nevertheless got our sympathy. The fun of the Road movies is always their interplay and the timing and delivery of their one-liners. What wasn’t ad-libbed or written in the original screenplay was usually contributed by one of the writers of their respective radio programs. A hallmark of their films is the self-reflexive humor, the breaking of the fourth wall where they seem to be talking to us, the audience.
Hope and Crosby were two of the most recognizable performers of the 20th century, having emerged from radio and vaudeville to become multi-media stars. They made a lasting mark on American culture. Lesser-known to audiences today, however, is the third member of the movie trio: Dorothy Lamour. She was born in New Orleans in 1914. She quit school at an early age and became a secretary. At this time she also competed in beauty pageants. She was crowned “Miss New Orleans” in 1931. With her mother, Dorothy moved to Chicago where she was discovered by orchestra leader Herbie Kay, whom she married in 1935. At the time, Kay hired her as a singer. This would lead to work in radio. In 1936, she headed West to Hollywood and was put under contract to Paramount. Her first break-through role was as a native in The Jungle Princess. She would soon be typecast in this genre, often playing island girls. She was later dubbed the “Sarong Queen.” During this time she worked with director John Ford in 1937’s The Hurricane. In 1940, she made The Road to Singapore, the first of her Road movies with Hope & Crosby. It would be the beginning of a lasting partnership that would carry into the 1960s.
Road to Morocco was the fourth biggest hit of 1942. It was the last Road movie released until after the war when the series resumed in the forties and early fifties. In 1962, Road to Hong Kong became the last of the series, but by then the magic was gone. In 1977, there was talk of yet another Road movie to be called Road to the Fountain of Youth, but Crosby’s death that year was truly the end of the road. In 1996, Road to Morocco was deemed culturally and artistically significant and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
In 1942, war-time audiences had simply wanted escapism from the horrors of the real world. It’s become a familiar road that new generations have taken over the years. Road to Morocco is one of the most popular and fun movies Hope & Crosby ever made. It was a trip to a Hollywood make-believe land of white suits and fez hats, beautiful princesses played by American girls, and talking camels commenting on how screwy the movie was. For audiences, then and now, the Road movies offer us a retreat from our world—a retreat to an exotic place where we can once again forget our troubles and just enjoy the banter of two great entertainers. It’s not a movie intended to make us think but rather to laugh, and that’s what this series was all about.
NOTE: Our screening of Artists and Models on May 19 was our second-lowest turnout of the season (just above the Wheeler & Woolsey film) with an attendance of only 56. Admittedly, with a Technicolor film like this, the impact is lessened if shown digitally. Had this been a 35mm IB Technicolor print, screened in a theatre, the experience would’ve been out-of-this-world. Regardless of the format, though, we should’ve had a larger turnout for this one. It’s a film about super-hero comic books, but we didn’t have one young adult in attendance.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the biggest comedy act of the 1950s. They surpassed the popularity of Abbott & Costello, who had been box office champions throughout most of the 1940s. Martin and Lewis first met in 1945 and debuted as a team in 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Dean Martin, a former boxer who hailed from Ohio, was the nightclub singer, and Jerry Lewis, a New Jersey kid who made an act out of lip-synching to records, was the comic. Unlike the earlier comedy teams, their background was not in vaudeville or Broadway. They emerged from the East Coast nightclubs. It was here where audiences first experienced the energy, spontaneity, and improvisation of Martin & Lewis. Theirs was a more unhinged style of comedy, and it skyrocketed them to fame in venues like New York’s Copacabana Club.
By the late 1940s, Martin & Lewis had made it into radio and television. In 1949, Paramount signed them to a contract and they provided the comedy support in My Friend Irma. They were the featured stars in 1950’s At War With the Army. Throughout the decade, they starred in several films such as Sailor Beware and Living It Up. Dino always played the romantic lead who’d sing a few songs. Jerry would be his charge, the little brother-type who’d always be messing things up. The films had a formula that succeeded at the box office. They even had a cameo in a Hope/Crosby “Road” movie, The Road to Bali. But Artists and Models, released in the middle of the decade, was a notch above the others as a result of the exceptional direction by Frank Tashlin.
Tashlin had been a wandering animator who bounced around town at various studios in the early 1930s. His best work in this field, though, was done at Warner Brothers where he directed many of their best cartoons including those featuring Porky Pig. Tashlin brought a flair for visual gags to his live-action movies. Artists and Models, which is about the love of comic books, is in some ways a cartoon come to life. Tashlin would direct their next film as well, Hollywood or Bust, which was their last film as a team. In addition to films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Tashlin directed many of Jerry Lewis’ solo efforts like Cinderfella. But Artists and Models remains a career high for Tashlin and Lewis.
The film has Dean and Jerry as a couple starving artists in Greenwich Village. Jerry, as Eugene, likes a little ketchup on his one bean. Dean, as Rick, aspires to be a painter while his roommate Eugene wants to write children’s books—when he doesn’t have his nose in a “Bat Lady” comic book. In his sleep, Eugene has nightmares about “Vincent the Vulture,” which keeps Rick up at night. These dreams pay off when Rick uses them to start his own comic series. Dorothy Malone is the artist behind the Bat Lady comic and Shirley MacLaine is the Bat Lady model– both of whom conveniently live in the upstairs apartment. Trouble ensues when it’s revealed that Eugene’s dreams contain half of a secret power formula sought after by foreign agents. Top secrets are being sold at the corner newsstand! The terrific supporting cast includes Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, and Eddie Mayehoff as the comic book publisher, Mr. Murdock. This was only Shirley MacLaine’s second film but the first of many she would make opposite Dean Martin. One of the most memorable at this time was Vincent Minnelli’s Some Came Running.
Artists and Models is essentailly a time capsule of ‘50s pop culture, from the debate over the harmful effects of “horror literature” like comic books to the science fiction craze popular at the time. As a bit of trivia, the spaceship model seen in the laboratory was actually a miniature used in Paramount’s Conquest of Space. In 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die, critic Adrian Martin writes of the film’s relevance, “Like Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Frank Tashlin’s crazy comedies exaggerate to the point of subversion the popular values of the American 1950s. Tashlin’s terrain was the media-sphere of advertising, TV, movies, and showbiz. By gleefully embracing and slyly satirizing this ‘plastic’ arena of clichés and stereotypes, he anticipated Pop Art.”
Artists and Models is a film I saw for the first time in a History of Cinema course taught by an avid Jerry Lewis fan. Though not a Martin & Lewis fan myself, I could see that the film had a lot going for it, including some terrific songs such as “Innamorata,” which was specifically written for the film and performed by Dean Martin. Additionally, Artists and Models features gorgeous Technicolor which adds to the comic book dimension of the story. And most importantly there was the visual comedy of Tashlin, who brought his animator’s sense of the absurd to the production. When Eugene plays on an empty board as though it were a piano, to the tune of “When You Pretend,” it recalls some of the surreal touches of Stan Laurel, whom Lewis greatly admired. Tashlin’s sight gags, including the opening in which Jerry gets sucked though an air tube, is like something out of one of Tashlin’s old cartoons. In these moments, Jerry is a comic book character brought to life.
There would only be one more Martin & Lewis film after this. The team would break up and go on to have successful solo careers. Jerry Lewis became “The Nutty Professor” and a cultural icon while Dean Martin became part of the legendary Rat Pack. The two would reconcile twenty years after their last movie. By then, the bitterness of the split had receded. But for ten years, the two were inseparable. They were a team like no other. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that they made an indelible mark on American pop culture. All these years later, only Jerry Lewis remains of the golden age comedy teams. Films like Artists and Models best showcase what made them comedy legends.
Way Out West is ranked as one of Laurel & Hardy’s finest feature films and one of the best comedy-Westerns of all-time. They weren’t the first to combine laughs in a Western setting—silent comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had already explored that territory—but Laurel & Hardy were the first of the great comedy teams to make an undisputed masterpiece in the genre—a perfect film that is a great example of their style. In the ensuing years, the Marx Brothers would Go West, Abbott & Costello would ride the range in Ride ‘Em Cowboy, and Martin & Lewis became Pardners, but Way Out West is a film that does more than repackage Western clichés. The film reveals the charm and magic that made Laurel & Hardy unique.
In Way Out West, Laurel & Hardy travel to the town of Brushwood Gulch in order to deliver a deed for a gold mine to Mary Roberts, the daughter of an acquaintance. When it falls into the hands of an unscrupulous saloon keeper, Mickey Finn, the boys endeavor to retrieve it… with the help of their mule. I’m not sure if Laurel & Hardy would be the two people you’d entrust a valuable piece of paper to, but that is the premise of the movie!
In the role of Mickey Finn is the squinty-eyed Jimmy Finlayson, the great Scottish character actor who was usually the foil in the Laurel & Hardy pictures. Playing the innocent daughter of the deceased prospector is Rosina Lawrence. Rosina was also known as Miss Jones, the schoolteacher in the Our Gang comedies being made at the time. Sharon Lynn is the saloon-singer Lola Marcel. One of her most memorable scenes has her tickling Stan in an effort to get the deed out of him. Of course, any scene with Stan laughing is almost always a comedy highlight.
Besides the great verbal and visual gags, the film offers some surrealistic humor—those magical, offbeat moments that can only be found in a Laurel & Hardy film. In this one, Stan Laurel ignites his thumb as though it were a match! In Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, author Randy Skretvedt writes that is was devised on the set. “The editor of the film, Bert Jordan, recalled, ‘One of the gag men on the set was trying to light a cigarette one day, and it wouldn’t light. It gave Stan an idea, and that’s how they got that gag.’”
The film features some of their most memorable routines, including the soft shoe shuffle to the tune of “At the Ball, That’s All”—performed to the accompaniment of The Avalon Brothers. It’s a scene that was so famous that it inspired comedian Billy Crystal to insert himself into it during an Oscar telecast montage in 1992. The film also has the boys singing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” In 1975, the song was lifted from the soundtrack and released as a single in England. It made it to Number 2 on the Pop Charts!
Another great attribute is the musical score, which was composed by Marvin Hatley. He would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Though he didn’t win, the nomination itself was quite an honor considering the Academy voters didn’t usually recognize comedies, much less ones spoofing another genre equally unloved by the Academy—the B-movie Western.
For those interested in the detailed production history of the film– and all the things that didn’t make it into the final release– there is a wonderful audio commentary on the dvd for Way Out West by Laurel & Hardy historians Richard Bann and Randy Skretvedt. In fact, they do two commentaries because they couldn’t get everything in the first time since the movie is only 65 minutes.
But in the commentary, they talk about seeing these films with a respectful audience because you can appreciate all the nuances and gestures even more. I think that’s what makes our Legends of Laughter series so unique from past programs. You really need to be here in our meeting room to see how laughter feeds on laughter. It’s only then that you can appreciate the magic of films like Way Out West.
At this point in their careers, both Stan and Ollie were dealing with marital turmoil in their private lives, yet you’d never know it watching the film. Beyond the laughter we all appreciate, there is a warmth and nostalgia to Way Out West that just leaves you feeling good by the final curtain—or rather, the last river crossing.
Decades before Ernie Kovacs or Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In or Mystery Science Theatre 3000, there was Hellzapoppin—a comedy that turned Hollywood convention upside down. The film showcases the inventive style of Olsen & Johnson. “Anything for a laugh,” was their motto, and Hellzapoppin lived up to it. Anything can happen and it probably will. It throws in everything including the kitchen sink. It became one of the zaniest comedies to ever come out of the studio system. With a talking bear, the Frankenstein Monster, and devils with pitchforks, how could it not be?
Hellzapoppin was based on Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson’s hit Broadway revue of the same name. Beginning in 1938, the show would go on to have an unbelievable run of 1400 performances. It had a theatrical spontaneity that no other show captured. Leonard Maltin explains, “It is difficult to describe Hellzapoppin’, because the show was different every night. One evening a musical number might appear before intermission; the next evening it could be the finale; and another performance it might not be used at all. The show was completely freewheeling, madcap comedy with no holds barred. Near the beginning of the show, a page would walk up and down the aisles carrying a small flower-pot, calling ‘Mr. Jones! Mr. Jones!’ He reappeared every so often during the show, and with each trip the plant would be bigger and bigger. When the audience left the theatre at the end of the show, the man would be perched on a branch in a huge tree planted in the lobby, still yelling ‘Mr. Jones!’ Likewise, a woman (usually Mrs. Chic Johnson) would continually stalk through the theatre searching for her husband Oscar. Every night a man would come in late to a special orchestra seat and take off his overcoat. A hanger would suddenly sail down from the ceiling, the man would nonchalantly hang up his coat, and the hanger would zip back into the heavens.”
The film version tried to approximate the insanity, but it was a controlled chaos. The studio erred on the side of caution and added a plot and love interest. As the fictional director in the movie tells Olsen & Johnson, “This is Hollywood. We change everything here.” The first reel of the film, which takes place in Hell, is brilliant. Then it becomes a more conventional story—precisely the kind of film Olsen and Johnson are satirizing. Despite the added characters not found in the original show, Hellzapoppin is a thoroughly original film that maintains its frenetic pace to the end.
The idea was to translate a Broadway revue to the screen. In the early days of talkies, Hollywood filmed these types of films in a very straightforward manner and the results were often static and talky. But a lot had changed in ten years. The premise of Hellzapoppin involves Olsen & Johnson’s attempt to bring their show to the screen with the help of a meek scriptwriter played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Within this free form narrative, they are shown scenes of the movie they will soon be appearing in. Meanwhile, all of this is being projected by Shemp Howard in his projection booth. Hellzapoppin becomes a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. It’s a film that plays creatively with the medium itself, often breaking the “fourth wall” between the characters depicted in the film and us, the audience watching it. In this respect, it creates the sort of audience involvement experienced in the stage show.
Though Hellzapoppin brought them great fame, Olsen & Johnson had been entertaining audiences for decades prior to this. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson both came from the Midwest. It was in Middle America where they cultivated their popularity. John Olsen, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born in Indiana. His first love was music, specifically, the fiddle. He was part of a quartet when he attended Northwestern University. Harold Johnson, better known as Chic, attended the Chicago Musical College where he played ragtime piano. In 1914, Olsen needed a new pianist for his College Four quartet and enlisted Johnson. The two would leave the quartet behind in favor of a musical act in vaudeville. Seeing that it was the comedy acts that made the big money in vaudeville, they added laughs to their routine.
As with the comedy team of Clark & McCullough, Olsen and Johnson made it into the movies early only to return to the stage. Their first attempt in Hollywood did not result in any two-reel comedies, but rather a handful of feature films, first with Warner Brothers and then with Republic Studios. In the late 1930s they were back on stage where they organized a musical revue called Everything Goes. It would be renamed Hellzapoppin’. A Broadway producer liked the show and had the boys expand the material for a Broadway debut. The show became an instant sensation.
Though the film version is not a recreation of the stage show, the same crazy spirit is evident. Ultimately, Olsen and Johnson were a little too crazy for Universal, which had to rein them in. Director H. C. Potter, who would direct such films as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, said of his experience on the film, “A lot of things that I worked very hard on—innovations—were, after I left Universal, gone completely. I screamed and yelled bloody hell, but there was nothing I could do about it.” Leonard Maltin elaborated, “For one thing, Potter never intended to show the projectionist, in order to maintain the illusion that O & J were really talking to someone in the projector booth of each theatre. It was Universal’s decision to film additional footage with Shemp Howard.”
Besides Shemp, Hellzapoppin features the bombastic Martha Raye, Misha Auer playing yet another foreign aristocrat, and Hugh Herbert as the master of disguise. The romantic leads were played by Robert Paige and Jane Frazee. Paige, who went on to become a TV newscaster for ABC News, is perhaps best-known for starring in Son of Dracula. He also worked with Abbott & Costello at Universal in Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. Jane Frazee had worked with Abbott & Costello in Buck Privates.
Also in the cast are the Harlem Congeroo Dancers who perform the explosive Lindy Hop number in the film. Hellzapoppin is a time capsule of 1940s musical tastes. The film offers a variety of musical forms, from pop tunes and swing to Busby Berkeley-style ballads.
Mixed with the music are the laughs, and Hellzapoppin is loaded with them. There are the self-reflexive jokes—the type one would find in a Hope & Crosby “Road” picture in which its characters make asides to the audience. There is also a lot of topical humor, including perhaps the first reference to Citizen Kane, which was still playing in theatres at the time. Olsen & Johnson were not slapstick comedians, but rather visual comedians. As a result, there are many sight gags involving props. Like the Marx Brothers, they worked with material they knew all too well from their days performing it on the stage. And like the brothers, their lunacy was often restrained by musical interludes and romantic subplots.
Olsen & Johnson would go on to appear in other enjoyable films including Crazy House and Ghost Catchers, but Hellzapoppin is the best showcase of what made this team unique. They worked together for 47 years, into the early 1960s. Though their names are all but forgotten today by the younger set, they left us at least one movie that is light years ahead of anything done by other comedy acts of the time. As a bit of trivia, in 1985, Daily Variety reported that Hellzapoppin was more popular in Berlin, Germany, as a “midnight movie” than the 1975 cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If I presented a midnight movie, it would be Hellzapoppin!
Postscript: We had 77 in attendance on Thursday night. The film received a nice reception with the biggest applause for the swing number performed by the Harlem Congeroo Dancers. Most of the scenes with special effects that involved the “projection” of the film itself got the biggest laughs. After the show, one of our regulars commented on seeing Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ when she was a small child with her father. This was when O & J had taken their show back on the road in the early 1950s. It had played in downtown Chicago and she remembered what a true extravaganza the show was.
Bud Abbott & Lou Costello were the two biggest moneymakers for Universal Studio in the 1940s. However, with the release of Little Giant followed by The Time of Their Lives, they had fallen into a box office slump. Abbott & Costello had been trying to do something different with these “character comedies” in which they didn’t even appear together as a team. The experiment failed, at least in terms of popularity. To right the ship, they made a sequel to Buck Privates, their 1941 military service comedy which had been the studio’s biggest hit of the year.
In Buck Privates Come Home, Bud and Lou return to the States onboard a troop ship with a little French orphan girl on their hands—one that Lou would like to smuggle into the country and adopt. The film is an example of the ‘comics with kids’ storylines that never went out of fashion. One of the best examples is Chaplin’s The Kid. Even the Stooges played babysitter in shorts like Mutts to You and Sock-A-Bye Baby. However, the storyline here more closely resembles the 1932 Laurel & Hardy feature Pack Up Your Troubles in which the boys return from World War I with a child they must deliver to the appropriate home. Lou Costello worked well with kids onscreen and it’s easy to see why Chaplin once planned to remake The Kid with Lou Costello. Chaplin called Costello “the best comic working in the business today.” The heart appeal of Buck Privates Come Home is mixed with the pratfalls, but the kid angle is never coy or sentimental.
The film opens with scenes from the original Buck Privates, in which Bud and Lou play necktie peddlers who are chased by a cop right into an Army recruiting station. They are enlisted and must contend with their new sergeant—the same cop who had been chasing them on the New York streets. The role of Sergeant Collins was played in both films by Nat Pendleton, a great Hollywood character actor audiences would recognize from countless films like Another Thin Man and At the Circus.
Beverly Simmons, in only her fourth film, plays Evey and Joan Fulton, whose career was started by Abbott & Costello when she was discovered in a nightclub, plays Sylvia, the nurse who takes Evey in. Fulton would work with Abbott & Costello later in their television show and she would appear in films like Some Like it Hot. Tom Brown plays Bill Gregory, Sylvia’s boyfriend who makes good in order to marry Sylvia and adopt Evey. Brown has the distinction of appearing in a film that features his own name, 1932’s Tom Brown of Culver.
Buck Privates Come Home features the kind of routines audiences had missed from Abbott & Costello’s more recent films. There are many terrific scenes including the well-staged teeter-totter table routine on the ship and the laundry sequence in which Lou sets up a hammock on a clothesline between two apartment buildings. The highlight of the film is the climactic race at the end in which Lou Costello drives an out-of-control midget racecar. When the car goes off track, the authorities have to catch up with him. It’s a chase that is one of the best in any Abbott/Costello movie. The scene was shot at the Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles, site of actual midget car racing.
In Abbott & Costello in Hollywood, Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo write, “The ever reliable John Grant came up with an innovative gag to cap the sequence. Herbie drives the car right through the rear of a movie theatre. (Sharp-eyed observers will spot the sign, ‘Abbott & Costello in ‘Romeo Junior’’ high up on the wall.) The car stops just as he crashes through the movie screen, on which an Abbott and Costello movie is being shown. Costello-on-screen is in the middle of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Costello looks down at Herbie and demands, ‘What’s the big idea?’ Herbie looks up at the giant image of Costello and replies, ‘Gee, you ain’t very pretty, are you.’ The screen Costello snaps, ‘Oh, a wise guy! Well, this is gonna hurt me as much as it does you!’, and he steps off the screen to bop Herbie in the nose! The crash had to be perfectly timed to coincide with the action on the screen. It took sixteen tries to get it right, and yet the scene was omitted from the final print. (Look closely and you’ll notice that Herbie is holding his nose when the rest of the cast catches up to him.)”
Buck Privates Come Home was directed by Charles Barton, who was responsible for some of their best films. This was the first one they made with producer Robert Arthur. This same production team would go on to make their greatest film the following year, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Even though Buck Privates Come Home doesn’t have the music of the Andrews Sisters, it is often considered better than the original. It’s a wonderful showcase of Abbott & Costello together and at their best.
I grew up watching Abbott & Costello on television. It was always part of the Saturday matinee on Channel 9. It’s where I saw most of their films like Buck Privates and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap and Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. It was a regular routine for me. Kids don’t have such routines anymore where films like these are played on a consistent basis. The Saturday Matinee showcase is gone, but we still have three dozen Abbott & Costello films that are all available on home entertainment. Three dozen films that preserve the comedy tradition that made Abbott & Costello two of the most loved comedians of the 20th century.
The following is a transcript from our presentation on 4/7/16. The Clark & McCullough shorts we screened, False Roomers and Jitters the Butler, went over very well and put the audience in high-gear for Duck Soup. The audience reaction to all the films was terrific. We even had some kids in attendance tonight, and hearing them laugh at the Marx Brothers made it all worthwhile.
Tonight we are showcasing two comedy teams. One is perhaps the most famous team in movie history. The other… all but forgotten. Though they are worlds apart in our collective consciousness, both teams inhabited a similar, madcap universe. Leonard Maltin, in his Great Movie Teams, wrote of the “genuine sense of the bizarre that made Clark & McCullough unique.” Indeed, one will find some inventive and even surreal moments with downright weird effects in their comedies. Few fans, except the most ardent, remember them, but in their day, they were stars whose popularity on Broadway was on a par with the Marx Brothers.
Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough both hailed from Springfield, Ohio. Clark first met McCullough when he was in 4th grade; McCullough was four years older. Their childhood friendship led to a tumbling act that became a theatrical partnership in 1900. They performed as part of a minstrel troupe and later, as a circus act. They were in the Ringling Brothers Circus by 1906. But they were more than just tumbling clowns, and after six years of such acrobatics they formed their own comedy act. Following stints in burlesque and vaudeville, the two became stars of musical comedy on stage, much like the Marx Brothers who were on their way to becoming Broadway stars. They made a foray into film with the Fox Studio in 1928 only to return to Broadway. Clark & McCullough made a more lasting impact in Hollywood when they returned a second time in 1931.
While at the RKO studio, the team made a series of two-reel shorts. Clark, with his painted-on glasses and cigar, was the fast-talking dynamo and McCullough, his laughing straight man in the fur coat. Most of these films were extremely entertaining and featured fast-paced dialogue and original sight gags. Their partnership ended in 1936 with the tragic suicide of Paul McCullough. Clark, who was always the dominant comic of the two, went on to have a great solo career on stage. Some of their best shorts included Odor in the Court, which you can find on YouTube, and Kickin the Crown Around, which was a satire on Prohibition involving salami smugglers. Clark & McCullough play two diplomats in one of those mythical nations Hollywood loved to invent: Jugo-Jaggon. We believe it’s somewhere near the Kingdom of Freedonia, our next destination!
Duck Soup is perhaps the most perfect Marx Brothers movie. It encapsulates the spirit of lunacy that made their early movies so exceptional. After this film, their style would be packaged into more traditional Hollywood scenarios, often incorporating subplots involving young lovers. But in 1933, they were free to be themselves at Paramount—a studio that actually knew something about comedy. It was the studio of Ernst Lubitsch and W.C. Fields. As a result, Duck Soup best reflects their anarchistic spirit. The brothers mocked everyone, from lofty institutions to society matrons. If their adversaries were high-hat or pompous, they were sure to fall victim to Groucho’s withering put-downs.
Though much of their humor rested in dialogue, as in Groucho’s wry observations, puns, and verbal exchanges with his brothers, particularly Chico, Duck Soup displays a variety of comedic forms. There is the political satire of the film’s basic premise, the slapstick of the lemonade stand, and the pantomime of the mirror sequence in which one brother mimics the actions of the other as though they were looking into a reflection of themselves. The routine had been done before by other comics, but only the Marx Brothers took the absurdity of the moment to a new level. No attempt is made to actually fool the other brother with any sense of realism.
The success of Duck Soup is in part due to a director who understood his performers: Leo McCarey. In The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Glenn Mitchell writes, “To McCarey may be attributed several ingredients of Duck Soup, including the title: it had been used for an embryonic Laurel & Hardy two-reeler released early in 1927 and would see additional service as a 1942 short starring Edgar Kennedy. Kennedy’s presence in the Marx film was probably at McCarey’s instigation, especially as he engages Harpo and Chico in the type of leisurely, exchanged violence McCarey had pioneered at Roach. Another legacy is the very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence in which Harpo and Chico stage a break-in. Their unsuitability to the task, locking themselves out after gaining admission, bears strong similarity to a Laurel & Hardy short of 1930, Night Owls. McCarey adapted such motifs to suit the Marxes.”
Duck Soup is a film I had played at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago as part of a double feature with the Wheeler & Woolsey film Diplomaniacs, which we played here a couple weeks ago. I almost played Duck Soup at the Library in my Screen Deco film series, but showing a Marx Brothers movie because of its high style set design would be a lost cause. Who’s going to concentrate on the Art Deco sets when the Marx Brothers are on screen? So I’m glad we’re able to present one of the greatest American comedies of all-time now as part of Legends of Laughter 2.
Before our April 7 screening of Duck Soup we will be showcasing the comedy team of Clark & McCullough with two of their shorts. Here is one of their best:
On March 31, 2016, we had our first capacity crowd of the season. Over 90 patrons attended our screening of Fra Diavolo. The feature presentation was preceded by two comedy shorts starring Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: Bargain of the Century (1933) and On the Loose (1931). Thelma and ZaSu alone generated more laughs than the Wheeler & Woolsey film from the previous week!
Producer Hal Roach was best known for his shorts starring Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang, but in 1931 he was also responsible for putting together the team of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts—the only female comedy team in Hollywood. Thelma Todd, a former school teacher turned model, was one of the great comediennes—as well as one of the great beauties of the screen. Thelma worked with all the popular comedy acts of the time, from Joe E. Brown to Buster Keaton, from the Marx Brothers to Laurel & Hardy. She even worked with Wheeler & Woolsey in a couple of their films including their best, Cockeyed Cavaliers.
ZaSu Pitts had been a dramatic actress in the silent era best known for her role as the wife in Von Stroheim’s Greed. Together, these two ladies starred in 17 shorts that ranged in quality. Some were terrific, others suffered from weak material. The Bargain of the Century, which we screened earlier tonight, was one of their best. When ZaSu Pitts moved on to bigger things, Patsy Kelly replaced her. Kelly, a former Broadway dancer, brought a lot of energy to the shorts she made with Thelma. These were generally better in quality than the earlier films, although there were some clunkers. The Kelly-Todd comedy series came to an end in 1935 with the tragic death of Thelma Todd at the age of 30. Tonight’s film is one of several that Thelma made with Laurel & Hardy.
Fra Diavolo is based on the 1830 comic opera by French composer Daniel Auber. It was a production Hal Roach had seen as a youngster in his hometown; its memory would inspire him to turn it into a film starring his most popular comics: Laurel & Hardy. Fra Diavolo’s most recent antecedent had been The Rogue Song, which was an operetta produced by the MGM studio and starring Metropolitan Opera star Lawrence Tibbett. Laurel & Hardy had been borrowed from Hal Roach to appear in this now lost film, but they were essentially just comic relief. In Fra Diavolo, they would be more an integral part of the storyline.
Set in 18th century Italy, it’s the story of a bandit who poses as a marquis in order to rob the rich. He seduces Lady Rocburg in the hope of stealing the 500,000 francs she keeps hidden in her petticoat. With him are his two man-servants. In the original operetta, these characters were wandering vagrants called Giacomo and Beppo, but in the movie they have become Stanlio and Ollio.
Dennis King portrays the bandit Diavolo. Born in England, King became a musical theatre star, performing on the Broadway stage in the mid-1920s. His first movie role was in 1930’s The Vagabond King. Though he’s quite good playing opposite Laurel & Hardy, King would appear in only two more films after this. Diavolo’s victims are portrayed by Thelma Todd, as the coquettish Lady Pamela, and Jimmy Finlayson, as her pompous husband, Lord Rocburg. The juvenile leads are played by Lucille Brown as Zerlina and Arthur Pierson as Lorenzo. The cast is also filled with many familiar faces that would be instantly recognizable to fans of the Hal Roach comedies. (Film historians Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann point out these great character actors on the excellent audio commentary for the dvd.)
Stan and Ollie, as Stanlio and Ollio, perform some of their best routines and comedic bits, such as the kneesy-earsy-nosey scene in which Stan shows his physical coordination by clapping his knees and grabbing his ear with one hand and his nose with the other and then reversing the hands and doing it again. There is also Stan’s “finger wiggle” and the wonderful sequence of him getting “spiffed” in the wine cellar. Both men are terrific in a film that seamlessly blends operetta with comedy. Fra Diavolo was a personal favorite of Stan Laurel’s.
The film was previewed at 117 minutes but nearly a half hour was cut out—most of this footage dealt with musical interludes involving Dennis King as well as the subplot of the two young lovers, Zerlina and Lorenzo. Hal Roach was proud of this production, although the MGM sales people didn’t know how to market Fra Diavolo. They insisted on changing its title to The Devil’s Brother. The film received mostly positive reviews and became a huge hit overseas. The foreign gross was four times larger than its domestic gross.
In The Films of Laurel and Hardy, William K. Everson writes about one of the film’s most famous sequences which also underscores our point about seeing these films in a group setting. “Unquestionably, though, the funniest single gag in Fra Diavolo was a repeat of one of their best routines. Hopelessly drunk from sampling all the wares in the wine cellar, they collapse in helpless laughter. Everything that happens, including their own arrest and threatened execution, merely spurs an even greater laugh reaction. From giggles to chuckles and then to belly laughs, the sequence builds, grows and feeds on itself, relying not on incident but only on the infectious quality of laughter itself. Such a sequence, for maximum effect, demands a large and cooperative audience, and in 1933 the film certainly got such audiences, yet even on television this classic sequence still retains its remarkable comic persuasion.”